Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) (1922)

Nosferatu

Nosferatu, Eine Syphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) – 1922

Director –  F. W. Murnau

Starring – Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, and Gustav van Wangenheim

Of the many different genres of cinema, horror seems to be relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to perceived importance and impact.  Drama, perhaps, is the category voted the most likely to get recognition and accolades, where as comedy seems to get the people’s choice award, but for my money some of the most effective and memorable films reside firmly in the realm of suspense, tragedy, and horror.  Even films that are billed more as mystery like, Psycho, or science fiction, such as Aliens, have elements directly rooted in the anatomy of the horror film.  Brimming with dark imagery, unsettling characters, and casual situations gone wrong, films such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Thing are very obviously direct descendants of Nosferatu.  it doesn’t end there either, F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece has informed the structure, tone, editing, and atmosphere of movies as a whole, and worked its way into the DNA of the language of modern cinema.

The most striking feature of Nosferatu, is the look of the film (duh…it is a silent movie after all.).  Though not as exaggerated and dramatic in appearance as fellow german expressionist work, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I found the imagery more immediate and haunting.  Starkly black and white (with only subtle color washes to provide a different feel for outdoor versus indoor scenes), Nosferatu relies on stillness and subtle creeping atmosphere to first un-nerve the viewer, then slowly build the tension of the film to a boiling point.  From the long shadowed gothic architecture of the vampire’s castle to the dilapidated, shell of a building which he inhabits upon his arrival in the fictional coastal town of Wisborg, the set pieces lend to the characters aura of danger, and the looming danger that follow with him.

Borrowing obviously from the Dracula story, originally by author Bram Stoker, Murnau and his lead actor Max Schreck craft a version of the vampire character rooted not so much in sexual charisma and riches, than it is in brute strength and fear.  Count Orlok as this Vampire is known, looks sleep deprived, starved, and ravenous.  There is a ferocity in the portrayal that is far more present and vibrant than almost every other vampire that I’ve ever seen depicted in film.  Orlok looks like a cross between the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, and a burned rat, and frankly seeing him for the first time, silhouetted in the archway of his manor, is more than a little unsettling.  The film even refers to him as the “Bird of Death”, further likening him to the dangerous animal that he is.

His appearance isn’t his only weapon though, throughout the film, the vampire utilizes impressive strength, mind control, power over animals, as well as a peculiar telekinetic ability which allows him to, non-corporally interact with the world (self-moving coffins, and doors opening in a simple, but effective stop-motion animation).  When these qualities are added up in one package, Orlok seems like an unstoppable force and brings a real sense of dread with him as he lurks slowly through the scene.

One of the first examples of a Cult Film, Nosferatu nearly didn’t survive after the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and a court ordered all existing prints of the film burned.  This bankrupted the production company who had neglected to acquire the rights to the Dracula story.  Luckily, copies of the film had already been shipped around the world, and survived destruction, eventually being copied and cultivated by fervent fans and film enthusiasts the world over.

As far as acting goes, the discussion should start and stop with the film’s terrifying lead, Max Schreck.  His gaunt frame and solid performance helped to create one of the most indelible characters ever created.  The rest of the cast does a fine job in their roles, but they only ever really play second fiddle to Schreck/Orlok, causing us to miss him when he leaves the frame and thrill us every time he is back on the screen.  His performance is so legendary, that a number of rumors have built up around both the character as well as the actor, painting him as everything from a true method actor, to a a real life sadist who simply plays himself on-screen.  It is these rumors that inspired a fictionalized telling of the actor’s life during the filming of Nosferatu, in the form of “Shadow of the Vampire” starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck.

From the research I’ve done (readings and such about the making of both Nosferatu as well as Shadow of the Vampire) I can find no evidence that any of that is true.  Instead, it would seem that this rather powerful character has simply had the effect of coloring people’s impression of a rather popular stage character actor.  Like many actors, (ie: Maria Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc, Linda Blair of the Exorcist, and Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game), Schreck seems to have used up all of his intensity, charisma and skill to be remembered for one great work of art.  Though he continued acting, it is always Nosferatu that he will be remembered for, and vice versa.

I feel like there is so much more that could be said about this film, including comparisons to other films, and weighing and mapping the influence that ripples even through the films of today, but I feel the best service I can do is simply to tell you to watch it.  Just watch the shit out of it.  I know it’s silent, and sometimes silent films can be boring, but this film is worth it (not that others aren’t worth it, mind you).  To see this film is to see one of the keystones in the history of film, a film that helped to define the rules which are adhered to even today.  So do yourself a favor and watch it, you won’t regret it.

“Nosferatu be needing some veneers!”  –  Ashley

The Exorcist (1973)

TheExorcist

The Exorcist – 1973

Director – William Friedkin

Starring – Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Jason Miller

As far as controversial movies go, I can think of no more infamous movie than William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Often cited as the “scariest movie of all time”, or at the very least one of the scariest, banned across the United Kingdom from it’s release until fairly recently in the 90s, and condemned by prominant religious figures and organizations as vile and evil, it’s safe to say that The Exorcist had quite a lot to live up to. I even encountered some trouble when trying to watch it, as it’s reputation was a bit daunting.  Ultimately I just bit the bullet, sat down, and watched it. But the big question is, “was it worth all the hype?” I’d have to say, resoundingly, yes.

To start with, the story. A young girl, Regan (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by a demon, and in the process, frightens her mother (Ellen Burstyn) with her foul behavior, filthy language, and her severe, self-inflicted wounds. After exhausting the options available to them through science and medicine, they turn to the church in an attempt to rid Regan of the demon. Sound original? Not really. The story isn’t a new one, stories similar to this one have been told before and since the release of the Exorcist. It is in the execution of this story, however, that the real difference comes in and where the magic lies.

The pacing of the film is huge. Without anything obviously scary happening, Friedkin still takes every opportunity to build the tension and create an atmosphere of un-ease, and anxiety. Every minute that goes by, we are slowly drawn in to the characters, the story, and the setting. The film is roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes. It could have been double that, and I still would have been caught up in it. Not one frame was wasted in moving us towards the climax, flickering lights, ambient sound, negative space, everything was used effectivly to create the mood. Without the time taken to get us into the minds of the characters, this could have very easily become a sensationalist monster movie, or a horror movie that was dependent upon shock value.

Sound. One very important method of ramping up the tension is through sound. It can be used to add an almost subliminal layer to the film, something like the rhythmic pounding of some machinery in the hospital, or the raspy breathing of Regan as she is possessed by the demon. The sound design is, when necessary, a bit more overt too. For example, the priests, fathers Merrin and Karras (von Sydow, and Miller respectively) walk up the stairs to start the exorcism and leave the girl’s miter Arther foot of the stairs watching. The camera pulls in slowly on the mother, and suddenly out of the blue, the phone rings causing her, and the audience, to jump out of our collective skins. These little, seemingly innocuous noises, like a phone ringing, or a floor creaking, or a soft scrabbling sound, go a long way towards building the tension for the inevitable climax of the movie.

Friedkin utilizes a lot of contrasting imagery to amplify the good versus evil theme of the story. One of the best examples of the use of this technique is the image used for the poster. Max von Sydow’s character (father Merrin) has just arrived at the house, and surrounded by a glowing white light he steps towards the darkly lit house. He is surrounded by darkness (evil), but brings with him light (good) and hope (still good). The light that surrounds him draws our eyes to the upstairs window of the house, where Regan and the demon are waiting, not only does this image characterize the themes of the story, but it visually connects the fate of the two opposing sides. This use of pregnant negative space occurs throughout the film. A darkly lit scene often times is immediately contrasted with a bright one, flip flopping to heighten the conflict, and draw the characters closer together. The imagery is at war with itself, vying for the audiences attention, while undermining and simultaniously accentuating the scenes that came before it. The positioning of the characters in The Exorcist speaks a lot about the battles and conflicts they face in the story. Often times characters are either ascending or descending into or from the scene (a buddy of mine actually wrote a bit about these contrasting visual qualities, you can read that here.). The staccato nature of the imagery builds to a frenzied pace, never letting up until the conclusion.

Tying all these elements together is the subdued yet distinctive musical score. It never overwealms the film, it instead helps to glue everything together. The score is instantly recognizable, and conjures up instantaneous images from the film (just ask who’s been terrorized by it).

If it isn’t clear up until this point, I loved this film. Depite my lack of religion based fear, The Exorcist kept me on the edge of my seat, enthralled every step of the way. This is what horror and suspense films should aspire to. Completely and totally recommended!

“Hilarious!” – Ashley

Vargtimmen (AKA: Hour of the Wolf) (1968)

HourOfTheWolf

Vargtimmen (AKA: Hour of the Wolf) – 1968

Director – Ingmar Bergman

Starring – Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, and Erland Josephson

Hour of the Wolf presents a much darker and scarier side of Ingmar Bergman than I’ve seen in any of his other films, without letting up on the acting or characterization that remains the hallmark of any Bergman movie.

This film is populated with some of Bergman’s regular stable of actors, including Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, and Max Von Sydow.  Ullmann and von Sydow play Alma and Johan Borg, a couple who have sequestered themselves on a remote island so that he may deal with his inner demons with a relative amount of privacy.  Seemingly, everything starts off on the up and up, but it quickly becomes evident that he is tortured by something, so much so that it keeps him up nights.  While Johan is distant and brooding while dealing with his fears, Alma, like a lot of female characters in Bergman’s works, saddles herself with the blame and responsibility of caring for him.  Unfortunately for them both, all she manages to do is join him on his descent into madness.

The imagery used is unsettling, and remote, causing the feeling of being further from safety.  The couple has chosen this secluded place in an attempt to find a safe place, but instead the (almost) deserted island presents more dangers than it shelters them from.  The feeling of isolation and helplessness increases as Johan’s described demons (the lady who threatens to take her hat off, and with it her face, the man who is disguised as a bird, and the lusty former conquest who is probably dead), begin to take shape in the form of the island’s other in habitants.

The line blurs even further when we learn the root of Johan’s guilt, and we start to believe there is more madness in him than sanity.  The telling of this story is a mixture of documentary, flashback, hallucination, and incomplete third person testimony, which only increases the unreliability of what actually happened.  The film starts as Liv Ullmann exits their cottage to a waiting (and unseen) documentary crew.  She tells of how Johan became more and more distant from her as he decended further into his fantasies.  From this we move on to what seems to be a flashback, peppered with further flashbacks and discussions with people who may or may not be there.  Little by little Alma is corrupted by the visions, and she starts seeing the same “ghosts” that Johan does.  At first we take for granted that her story is being relayed to this unseen documentary crew, but soon enough we’re not sure if they are the end result of her own madness.

Possibly the most unsettling part is, when at one of the final gatherings of the various characters, the old lady wearing the hat finally takes it off.  The whole movie has built to what happens next.  We watch as Johan unravels before our eyes, assailed with imagry borrowed years later for such classics as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  The power of this imagery is the fact that it is not over-used, and for the entire first half of the movie is only hinted at, and suggested.

Filmed entirely in high contrast, black and white photography enhances the unsettling feel of the entire film.  From sunrise to mid-day, and from sunset to the titular hour of the wolf, the lighting borrows and lends in equal measure from the mood of the characters.  A walk home at dusk is much more threatening, while we feel more self assured during the bright day time scenes.  Even through watching this lesser known film (at least it was lesser known to me) it is certainly easy to see how longtime Bergman cinematographer,  Sven Nykvist, won his two Oscars (both Bergman films Fanny and Alexander and Cries and Whispers) and was nominated for numerous other awards worldwide.

Though, Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen in Swedish), isn’t one of the films first thought of when you hear Ingmar Bergman, it is still a valuable exercise in tone and atmosphere, and is truely representative of what makes a Bergman film.  The lonliness and tension are palpable, and by the end, just like someone who is going mad, we question everything!

“More like The Hour of the Get the Fuck Over!” – Ashley